321: A reshuffle and public affairs: the real story
We can all get very excited about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ during a reshuffle. But beyond the personalities involved, the real implications are for policy. Those in public affairs need to look behind the headlines and seek out the consequences.
Anyone with even a passing interest in politics can find a reshuffle interesting at least when it comes to the big offices of state. However, further down the list of ministers interest can start to wane. Politically, a reshuffle is normally seen as the chance to reset or relaunch a government, bring in some fresh faces and generally boost a PM and their party.
Stability is often lacking when it comes to some ministerial positions. Nadine Dorries is, for instance, the third culture secretary under Boris Johnson and the tenth in 10 years.
UK government is often criticised for this type of shifting cast list, with claims that it undermines consistent policy development with few ministers being experts in their area or having the time to become experts. That, of course, ignores the role of the civil service. It is also the political reality that governments love flexibility and reshuffles are an outward sign of that.
But to deliver effective public affairs advice you need to consider the motivations for the reshuffle, the appointments, and the policy implications.
- Change or adaptation? – the core drivers of a government could be changed by a reshuffle but mostly it facilitates a refocusing on those policies that help get it elected in the first place. Johnson’s government has had to deal with COVID-19 so this reshuffle means it can ‘get back’ to what it really wants to deliver, such as ‘levelling up’. The appointments made show this to be the case. The ‘big brain’ / problem solved in government is seen to be Michael Gove and he has been given oversight of this at DCLG.
- Unpopular policies can be conveniently jettisoned – this is especially true for policies away from the public eye. A new minister can look again at the issue and make their own mind up. But even those in the public eye can be reconsidered. Planning reform would be a key example in this reshuffle (and as I write it appears the reforms have been ‘paused’). The government believes that reform is needed but now has the space to look again at its proposals and rework them. In other words, it could dump reforms least liked by their voters. So, a reshuffle enables the unpopular aspects of policy to be removed just as unpopular ministers can be removed.
- Space for new thinking? – is there the possibility that a new minister be open to new ideas? It must be remembered that all ministers would like to make some sort of (positive) impact. So, a new appointment may open space for engagement which should be grasped.
Pro-active public affairs is essential under these circumstances as little can be taken for granted and whatever the real driver behind a reshuffle, it opens space for engagement, ideas, and reappraisals.
Of course, some of this depends on the power of the individuals or their total commitment to the PM but even that can change over time.
There is also no guarantee that a reshuffle will work. The most infamous example of a reshuffle that showed the weakness of a PM was arguably, Harold MacMillan’s night of the long knives. But for this reshuffle at least it looks like the PM will get what he wants, at least initially.